LIFE IS STRANGE Review
Life is strange. You can hate something on any given day, only to find yourself loving it by the next. I thought I had successfully left Tumblr-core hipsterdom behind back in high school, but here I am, fawning over an unabashedly dreamy and nostalgic indie-teen caper through the Pacific Northwest, with not even the slightest hint of shame. Dontnod’s episodic adventure LIFE IS STRANGE fully lives up to its eponymous mantra, delivering an experience at once familiar and innovative. The French developer’s take on American high school drama is certainly a surreal experience, and that’s not just because of the supernatural elements at play. LIFE IS STRANGE, more than anything, proves that the greatest works can come from the most unexpected places.
LIFE IS STRANGE is set in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, in an even more off-the-wall depiction of Oregon. Returning to her hometown to finish her senior year of high school is Max Caulfield, 18-year-old girl and anthropomorphic wet dream of Bryan Lee O’Malley, complete with an arsenal of pop-culture references, a plaid-and-meme-based wardrobe, and dreams of becoming a successful photographer. Max bumps into childhood friend Chloe being held at gunpoint by a mean dude, and manages to save her through her completely coincidental discovery of time travel. But narrowly-averted school shootings and temporal hijinks are only the tip of the iceberg. Armed with her mysterious new ability to rewind time, Max gets involved with Chloe’s investigation into missing student Rachel Amber, discovering a whole heap of dark secrets along the way.
In addition to long walks on the beach and playing with Instagram filters, Max enjoys acoustic covers of Death Grips
While its premise sounds like the convoluted lovechild of TWIN PEAKS and QUANTUM LEAP (and there are plenty of on-the-nose references to both series here), LIFE IS STRANGE would seem fairly straightforward from a gameplay perspective. Players can make Max walk and talk, sure, but the kicker is they can also turn back the clock in and out of cutscenes. With a tap of the button, Max rewinds time, which comes into play when solving puzzles, if you need to hear a line again, or if you accidentally piss off a guy with a knife. There is no fail state in LIFE IS STRANGE. If Max dies or is otherwise unable to advance, she can just rewind away from danger. Time travel allows Max to observe different outcomes to a situation and judge the correct course of action, but the mechanic isn’t a cop out. Max can only go back a few minutes; once she moves on to a new scene, she is stuck with her decisions.
Of course, it’s impossible to write about an adventure game like LIFE IS STRANGE these days without comparing it to the expansive catalogue of Telltale Games. Telltale’s near-monopoly on the adventure game market has changed the public’s perceptions of what these type of games should be. But where Telltale titles like TALES FROM THE BORDERLANDS or GAME OF THRONES do little to elevate themselves from visual novels, LIFE IS STRANGE stays closer to the traditional definition of the genre, featuring both environmental and dialogue-driven puzzles. The puzzles themselves vary in difficulty, with some enigmas taking up to 20 minutes to solve and featuring multiple, clever solutions, and others so obvious and slapped-together that it feels like Dontnod included them only to remind you that you’re in a video game. Unfortunately, it’s these perfunctory fetch quests that make up the majority, making it easy to forget about the gems.
Like many students, Max often find herself wishing she could rewind to office hours
The writing in this game is a little tricky to discuss. On one hand, LIFE IS STRANGE is an intriguing and captivating tale. The search for Rachel Amber takes Max and Chloe to some really disturbing places, and where Episode One is shining with VERONICA MARS and SCOTT PILGRIM feels, the game is strongly vibing THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by the Episode Five finale. Max goes through a fascinating arc as well, beginning as a guileless schoolgirl and ending up as a jaded, hard boiled sleuth. Witnessing the duo get beaten down by their investigation is a journey in and of itself. The branching plotlines that span multiple episodes also deserve special recognition. Whereas even the much lauded first season of THE WALKING DEAD was a firmly on-rails experience despite which choices were made, LIFE IS STRANGE can radiate in so many different ways that it warrants several playthroughs, and no matter what ending you get, it is sure to floor you. Does it revolutionize player choice? Hardly, but it executes it to a degree rarely seen in gaming, and it would be a crime to not start a new save file after beating it for the first time.
On the other hand, some of the dialogue in LIFE IS STRANGE is simply laughable. The game suffers from severe “How do you do, fellow kids?” syndrome at its onset, and while adult characters speak naturally, the predominantly teen cast, Max included, drop some real howlers. Main characters are all proficiently voiced, yet some of the supporting characters deliver hack performances. The atrocious lip-synching in earlier episodes does not help, either. It would be one thing if this game was originally recorded in Dontnod’s native French, or even publisher Square Enix’s Japanese, but this game was specifically written in English to avoid the aforementioned vernacular pitfalls. That being said, Dontnod has admirably utilized the game’s episodic nature to address such criticisms between releases, and the in-game conversations become noticeably less cringeworthy with each installment.
But no amount of patches will make us forget this winner.
LIFE IS STRANGE, like most episodic series, is a fairly small download, so don’t expect photorealistic visuals a la UNTIL DAWN or BATTLEFRONT in any version of the game. What you should look forward to, however, is a gorgeous art style that manages to make the game beautiful, despite its graphical limitations. Textures are all painted by hand, and while the game isn’t cel-shaded, it is immediately reminiscent of the likes of THE WIND WAKER and TEAM FORTRESS 2. Wind trails are clearly illustrated, spiraling lazily through the environments. Photos, posters, and other printed material appear to be daubed onto surfaces rather than manifesting as separate models, and in this particular case, they mesh seamlessly with the quasi-mural aesthetic. Piggybacking off of the game’s themes of photography, scenes are lovingly framed and pull off a lot of cool effects with focus. Each environment is meticulously detailed and chock full of items that the player can examine. Yes, the game’s budget does show itself in the form of faraway (and sometimes nearby) 2D cutout crowds and clone NPCs, but rarely are these noticed. What I remember instead is how I would spend minutes watching flocks of birds dance around in the sky or admire some of the game’s arresting vistas. There is no denying that LIFE IS STRANGE is a breathtaking game, and it serves as a textbook example of artistic brand trumping hardware limitations.
‘Humpback Mountain’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Arcadia Bay
Dontnod is a relatively new developer, and it’s apparent in some of the game’s earlier segments. But once LIFE IS STRANGE hits its stride, it bounds past any other competitor in its field. It has its flaws, some more noticeable than others, but then again, so do most masterpieces. LIFE IS STRANGE is the sleeper hit of 2015, a release that nobody expected and that everyone should experience. Without a doubt, this is one of the best games of the year, and if you haven’t taken a trip down to Arcadia Bay yet, now is the perfect time.
Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for download on Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC.